Jerome a small school prospect with big potential

(STATS) – The day before Saint Francis home games was swim day for Lorenzo Jerome. Sometimes, he’d do the therapeutic laps all by himself.

“It relaxes my mind, it relaxes my body,” he said. “I just feel like I’m in the water with the sharks and I’m floating and I can’t be touched.”

The sharks are about to get bigger, stronger and more dangerous. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll touch Jerome.

Potential FCS draftees are considered “small school” prospects, and the All-America free safety epitomizes the description. He played for a Northeast Conference program that until 2015 hadn’t posted a winning record in 23 years. Next month, he hopes to become Saint Francis’ first NFL draft pick since 1944 and just the sixth in NEC history.

“It would mean a lot,” he said. “It shows that my work ethic paid off and it shows how far I came.

“It motivates those guys (in the SFU program) to keep working harder and make their dreams come true.”

Whatever NFL opportunity comes his way, Jerome is confident he will take advantage of it the way he did so many times at Saint Francis. Playing under coach Chris Villarrial, who was an NFL offensive lineman for 11 seasons, Jerome starred in the secondary, picking off 18 career passes, and as a return specialist ranking first in the FCS in kick return average as a junior and second as a senior. In his final season, the only four-time first-team All-NEC honoree totaled six interceptions and 11 pass breakups as the Red Flash both won the NEC title and qualified for the FCS playoffs for the first time.

In January, there was nothing small about what Jerome accomplished in two postseason all-star games. Perhaps no college football player did more with his opportunities than Jerome, who intercepted two passes and won defensive MVP honors at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and then intercepted two more passes and forced a fumble at the Reese’s Senior Bowl.

But momentum was zapped at the NFL combine earlier this month. After becoming the first participant from Saint Francis and the NEC, he completed the 40-yard dash in 4.70 seconds – slow enough to give any NFL team pause on selecting him.

He improved at Saint Francis’ pro day Thursday. His former coaches timed Jerome at 4.56, while scout times reportedly ranged from 4.51 to 4.58.

“I have great football speed. Football speed and 40 speed are two different things – that’s how I see it,” Jerome said.

“On the field, you’re guarding a receiver, you’re not just running a straight line, you have to weave, you have to step and open up your hips, you have to take great angles so you catch him. Because a receiver can be ahead of you and you can catch him from a different angle. You just have to take great angles.”

Measured at 5-foot-10, 204 pounds, Jerome is below the size of an ideal NFL safety. But he has outstanding instincts and ball skills, with an almost sneaky style because his quickness comes out when the ball is in the air. In run support, he is adept at driving through the legs of a ball carrier.

Lead draft analyst Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting calls Jerome a “true anticipator, not guesser, at the safety position.”

“Every single day he is competing to be the best version of himself,” said Marco Pecora, Saint Francis’ defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. “Every single day he wakes up, he is on a relentless pursuit for a competitive edge. His skill set on the football field is also so diverse. The two best parts of his game physically are his instincts to read and react and his acceleration patterns. He can close some serious ground on a football field. He can do so many things for a NFL team and when you put him on a football field, no matter what day of the week it is, he is going to make plays.”

Unlike home games at Saint Francis, a pool wasn’t available to Jerome on road trips. His game day ritual would become an early morning workout on the treadmill, and the native Floridian says he would listen to music and visual himself swimming with the sharks.

In his mind, he may as well be a great white shark.

“The FCS level has great competition, so at the end of the day, I always say ‘football is football,'” said Jerome, who will visit with some NFL teams prior to the April 27-29 draft in Philadelphia. “You got to play the game, it doesn’t matter where you come from as long as you can run, hit, tackle, intercept balls.

“Scouts pay attention to (the level), but I think at the end of the day, you just have to play great football. They will love you at the end of the day.”